Wireless Is Not Different. You Can't Be Half-Open

Last week, a firestorm erupted after Google and Verizon jointly proposed new rules to lawmakers for protecting the “open Internet” and net neutrality. When Google and Verizon professed their love for the open Internet (“Google cares a lot about the open Internet,” said CEO Eric Schmidt), they left out the future of the Internet, the wireless Internet. Instead, they would only apply to the wired Internet.

Plenty of people called Google out for its hypocrisy. Either you are open or you are not. There is no such thing as being half-open (it’s like being half-pregnant).

Telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T want to treat the wireless Internet differently than the wired Internet. But it is not different. It is the same Internet, just accessed by different networks and different devices. It shouldn’t matter how you get there, the Internet should operate under one set of rules.

Google and Verizon argued that “wireless broadband is different from the traditional wireline world,” and that it is moving too fast to be bogged down by regulations. AT&T later chimed in supporting the carve-out with a post titled “Wireless Is Different.” It too warned against “onerous new net neutrality regulations” for wireless broadband, noting that wireless networks have orders of magnitude less capacity than wired networks at their disposal. Because of this limitation, AT&T argued, “wireless carriers must to be able to dynamically manage traffic” and operate their networks as they see fit. Cry me a river.

The issue here is not about managing traffic for often-valid technical reasons. It is also not about “burdensome” regulation. It is about setting the rules of the road for how the Internet will be delivered to consumers. The broad principles should be the same: whenever possible, all bits should be treated equally

If you read Google’s and Verizon’s proposed rules, they are actually a step forward in that for the first time they would prohibit broadband providers on the wired Internet (like DSL, cable, and fiber) from discriminating against any kind of “lawful” Internet content or application over another. They also would prohibit wired broadband providers from taking payments to deliver Internet traffic from one Website faster than anyone else’s.

These are sound proposals. Why wouldn’t you want to apply them to the wireless Internet as well? No bits should get any preference, and business deals that include “paid prioritization” of one Website’s content or applications would be illegal. In addition to not allowing wireless carriers to discriminate by content or application, they also shouldn’t be able to discriminate by device. Can you imagine a business deal between Google and Verizon where Android phones get faster download speeds than other phones on the network (including, soon, the iPhone)? Or YouTube videos get priority across all devices?

There are plenty of reasons to believe Google when it says it would never do such a thing, including its long advocacy of an open rules for the wireless Internet. But that was then, when Google was more idealistic and less willing to compromise its basic principles. Anyway, it is not Google we should be worried about, so much as Verizon or AT&T. Replace Google with Apple or Microsoft or News Corp. and it would still be just as wrong. Even without any explicit business agreements, you don’t want the wireless carriers deciding which apps or content should get priority delivery.

By taking the wireless Internet off the table in terms of abiding by any net neutrality rules, Google and Verizon invite such speculation. One man’s prioritization is another man’s discrimination.

Nobody wants burdensome regulation, but given that broadband access is a quasi-monopoly in most parts of this country with only one or two providers in any given town, and choice in wireless carriers is not much better, a few guidelines are in order. Fred Wilson suggests:

I would like to have one basic rule that is so simple that everyone understands what it means and we can simply follow it.

He points to the work of Stanford law professor Barbara Van Schewick, who proposes:

A non-discrimination rule that bans all application-specific discrimination, but allows all application-agnostic discrimination.

What this means is that a carrier couldn’t block Skype or Apple’s Facetime, but they could still discriminate against applications that take up more than a certain threshold of bandwidth. (Again, the rule might also include a ban on device-specific discrimination). A rule like Shewick’s would allow the carriers to manage the capacity constraints of their wireless networks while still upholding the principles of net neutrality.

Net neutrality does not mean that everybody gets to download an unlimited amount of BitTorrent movies onto their cell phones. It simply means that all bits are treated equally, even when they are blocked.

Photo credit: Flickr/ Jon-Eric Melsæter